Alternate Title: Sad Pasts Excuse All Sins!
The Chick: Isobel Carrington. After a burst of self-righteous fury compels her to interrupt a boxing match to hawk her charity and spar (verbally and eventually physically) with one of the fighters, she is horrified to discover that someone's placed a wager that she and the fighter (Sterling Sinclair) will marry by the end of the Season, and that the whole of the ton (and the city as well) wants in on it.
The Rub: She's the untitled daughter of a disapproving MP of a father, and one with a tarnished reputation to boot: she lost not only her brother at the battle of Corunna, but her beau, with whom the ton matrons erroneously assumed she'd relinquished her virginity.
Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.
The Dude: Sterling Sinclair, Lord Blackburn, a.k.a. "Greed." After his father booted him and his six siblings out of the family estate for being spoiled brats nicknamed "The Seven Deadly Sins," he's taken to gambling and prize fighting to pad their meager allowance. After meeting Isobel at the boxing match, he places a ten thousand pound wager that he'll marry her by the end of the Season, thinking he can kill two birds with one stone: 1) marry a respectable girl and thus earn back his father's respect, and 2) get enough money to allow his sibs a standard of living appropriate to their noble station.
The Rub: His brothers convince him to extend the bet, and encourage him to play hot-and-cold with Isobel in order to make sure the wager doesn't appear to be a sure thing, whether he really wants to or not. Also, he used much of the family's remaining allowance to make the bet, so if he loses, he loses everything.
Dream Casting: Matthew Macfadyen.
Isobel: Hi folks, I'm here to tell you this interruption in your boxing match has been brought to you by Moral Guilt, Self-Righteous Superiority, and Flighty Female Behaviour!
Sterling: Hey lady...
Isobel: Back off, asshole! *bitchslaps!*
Society: IT MUST BE LOVE!!!
Isobel: What? Someone's bet I'm going to marry that brute? But I hit him in public!
Society: NO MEANS YES!!!
Sterling's Sibs: Wait, Sterling, YOU placed the bet? With all of our money? But she hit you in public!
Sterling: Haven't you ever read a romance novel? The harder she hits, the hornier she is! Plus, I'm a sex god and the heir to a dukedom. It's a sure thing!
Isobel: Sterling Sinclair, you are a brute and a cad and a terrible human being!
Sterling: Want to have sex on an ancient Greek sculpture?
Ancient Greek Sculptor: *rolling in grave*
Isobel's Jackhole Dad: Psst, Daughter I Emotionally Abuse To Hide My Secret Pain and Fondness For Her, Sterling's the one who made the wager!
Sterling: But I love you!
Isobel: Oh, that makes it okay then. *marries*
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Vulnerable Heroine with a Tarnished Reputation
1 Scoundrel Hero with a Gambling Problem
6 Selfish, Spoiled Siblings
2 Very Bad Fathers
2 Inconveniently Dead Mothers
1 Ill-Thought-Out Wager
1 Meddling Servant
1 Defilement of an Historical Art Piece for Sexual Gratification
1 Murderous Irishman
1 Whiny Best Friend
The Word: For this review, I must thank the wonderful Ana from The Book Smugglers. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the gap between Idea and Execution, and I mentioned To Sin with a Stranger as an example of a book with an idea I thought of as a silly gimmick that was still getting some good reviews here and there. Ana, who had bought the book, couldn't review it for her site because of the overwhelming magic that is Smugglivus (their awesome blog anniversary party/festival/natural phenomenon), and wonderfully mailed me her copy so that I could review it. First of all, THANK YOU ANA! Secondly, did this book exceed the low expectations I'd given its idea? Nope. It met my low expectations pretty well, and in some cases even sank past my low expectations with a few of its ideas and themes that I flatly disagreed with. If you need any other indication - the cliches in this book alone have inspired a new Corny Cliche Round-Up post that is forthcoming.
Anyway, on to the plot, such as it is. Sterling Sinclair and his six siblings, to deal with their father's retreat into alcoholism after the death of their mother, decided to become spoiled brats to get his attention. When people started calling them names (i.e. "The Seven Deadly Sins") because they become spoiled brats, their poor little feelings were hurt, and they decided to become even nastier hellions to deal with their boo-hoo inner pain, instead of, you know, improving their behaviour or trying to redeem themselves, because, well that just isn't as interesting and we wouldn't have a plot, now would we?
Well, they finally do get their father's attention, but not in the way they imagined - waking up out of his haze of scotch-fumes, Daddy Dearest realizes his kids are idiots and carts them off to London, permits them only the barest of allowances, and gives them four years to bring honour back to the Sinclair name or else. A month later, Sterling's taken to prize fighting in Pugilistic clubs to line his siblings' pockets on his winnings and the wagers his brothers place on him.
In the middle of his match, however, he meets Isobel Carrington when he comes to within an inch of punching her in the face when she jumps between the fighters waving pamphlets for her charity, shrilly trying to guilt the spectators into coughing up dough for her precious widows and orphans. Her pontificating impresses exactly no one (including me). It's only the next day, at a ball, that she feels concerned for her reputation. But oh, it was her golden, shiny sense of righteousness that made her do it! She sees other people whispering about her appearence in the club and knows it's only a matter of time before her father finds out. Her father is a cruel asshole MP who spends ninety percent of his day at work and the other ten percent telling his daughter what a disappointment and a burden she is.
Her distress increases when Sterling and his siblings show up. Sterling acts like the smug douchebag he is and caresses her face in public, and Isobel earns points from me for bitchslapping him (twice!) instead of obediently falling all a-twitter in lust for him. Unfortunately, her violent reaction causes people (including her father) to think a little sumthin'-sumthin's going on between the two, and the very next day an anonymous bettor places a ten thousand pound wager at White's that Isobel and Sterling are bound to marry by the end of the season.
It comes as no surprise that Sterling's the one who placed the wager. He thinks it's a perfect plan - Isobel's from a respectable family, so marrying her should earn him his father's respect, and the resulting winnings will ensure his siblings live the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed. Of course, what neither of the protagonists count on is the interest this wager stirs up among the ton - pretty soon, everyone's betting on the relationship, and society finds itself divided mostly along gender lines: the men bet against the marriage, thinking it's unrealistic, and the women bet for the marriage, thinking it must be "twue wuv." And no one considers themselves too scrupulous to do whatever they can to influence Isobel and Sterling into the outcome they bet on.
I know my Alternate Title for this book wasn't exactly funny, but it's meant to explain my main problem with this novel (and I have many). There wasn't a single character I sympathized with or related to in this book. None. There are two reasons for this:
1. Most of these characters' bad behaviour or ridiculous decisions are "explained" away by sad pasts (as mentioned above) and
2. Sad pasts aside, none of their actions or decisions made any sense!
Let's start with Sterling Sinclair. I give Caskie props for her gimmick: Sterling embodies Greed pretty well - he makes several unwise decisions with money in this novel in attempts to get more money, BUT they aren't founded on any realistic reasons. Let's go with the big one: the wager that he and Isobel will marry. He's known this girl for, what, fifteen minutes, and he's already willing to bet the rest of his family's allowance (which is supposed to last four years) that he'll marry a woman who barely knows him and what little she does know about him she doesn't like (and has made it very obvious that she doesn't like). His reasoning is literally this: "I'm a Marquess and she's a mere Miss. Also, I'm handsome and awesome. I see no flaws in my plan." I know arrogance is a common trait in romantic heroes, but this one tipped over the edge into delusion. I just couldn't believe that a man who truly cared for his siblings' welfare would risk all of their finances on such a flimsy wager.
That being said, his siblings aren't much better. Daddy Dearest left them just enough for room and board, but they need Sterling's extra money to maintain appearances, so that they may keep their place in society. While they fret and worry over the lasting physical damage Sterling risks every time he gets into the boxing ring, no one else in his huge family is willing to do anything else to bring in money. Sure, his sisters can't do much except look pretty and pimp themselves out at parties, but Sterling has three able-bodied, supposedly intelligent brothers who do shit-all while Sterling gets punched in the face for their benefit. Sterling's loathsome sister Ivy ("Envy") is easily the worst of the bunch - she mouths horrified exclamations over the bruises he receives so she can afford baubles, and then turns around and steals his hard-earned money, leaving weights in his purse so that he won't realize until she's already spent it.
But of course, all the Sinclairs' bad behaviour is "explained" away by their boo-hoo past with their absent alcoholic father.
Now, let's look at Isobel. Despite her awesome bitchslapping skills, she's a whining self-righteous hypocrit with delusions of grandeur. Her "I'm doing this for the widows and orphans" martyr bit, her "I'm the only one who can help these widows and orphans" schtick, as well as her "I'm so much better than everyone else because I'm the only one who helps these widows and orphans" attitude get old really fast. She doesn't like being manipulated by her frankly disloyal best friend Christiana and the members of the ton trying to improve the wager's odds, but she has no problem playing with Sterling's feelings and manipulating other people in order to pump society for donations.
She's also one of those mythical Regency virgins who jump their hero's bones at the first available opportunity, Society's mores and the threat of pregnancy and the loss of reputation be damned, who also happen to be adventurous sexual tigresses on the first try. To Sin with a Stranger is a pretty accurate title, all things considered - she and Sterling don't get a chance to really talk or get to know each other for very long before she decides to have sex with him on a Grecian marble sculpture. When they started going at it, I actually flipped back about a hundred pages to see if I'd missed some significant conversation. They talk and dance and make goo-goo eyes at each other, but even flipping back I could see they didn't actually spend that much time together, or at least, not enough time to justify her actions. This made the sex scenes blatantly unrealistic instead of sexy - the first couple of times they make love, she initiates actions and allows actions that seem anachronistic (at best) for her to know about, much less tolerate.
But of course, all her actions are "explained" away by the teary fact that her brother and boyfriend died on the same day, and her mommy committed suicide and her daddy's an asshole.
And don't get me started on her father. For the majority of the book he is a manipulative, conniving, threatening shithead who calls her an embarassment, believes her to be a slut, threatens to ship her off to a pig farm if she doesn't seduce Sterling, whines about what a burden she is and how he'd rather she marry anybody so long as she isn't his problem anymore, and then turns around and tries to push her at another dude because he suddenly doesn't like Sterling anymore and is bizarrely proud of the fact that two men are competing for the daughter he treats like shit.
But then at the end of the book it's revealed he has a sad past, so all of his behaviour is okay. Oh, he was just so sad that his son died and his wife killed herself that he decided to emotionally abuse his daughter and force her on men she says she hates all so that she won't marry and leave him. Leaving aside the fact that there's no rational connection between his motivations (keep her from marrying!) and his actions (threaten her with pigshit if she doesn't marry!), there's the rather obvious fact that his inner vulnerability does not excuse his actions. Actually, knowing the why behind the asshat-ery actually made it worse for me - it's easier to stand a father character who's an asshole just because he's naturally an asshole than a father who intentionally abuses his daughter because he loves her too much for her to leave. It turned wrong into creepy and wrong.
This whole book seems to thrive on the idea that if a person has bad things happen to them, it excuses the retarded things they do later. The Sinclair siblings are selfish, spoiled rich kids who got off on intentionally distressing others but get to be sympathetic characters because they conveniently have an alcoholic dad they can blame all their problems on.
Another part of the book I disliked was the sexual aspect. Now, I'm not a prude, but this book had ideas about sex that I frankly disagreed with. First, the hero and heroine have sex before they really know each other all that well (although, to be fair, by the end of the novel I wasn't sure they knew each other all that well), and the hero and heroine realize their feelings for each other during their sexual encounters rather than through conversation (although, to be fair again, they interact more in the sexual encounters than they do at dinner parties and balls).
I might have written this off as poor plotting rather than a message, until about page 210 when Isobel's irritatingly forward maid Bluebell is discussing a list of Sterling's good qualities and mentions "good in bed" twice (although she's seemingly unaware that Isobel already cashed in her V-card). When Isobel points out Bluebell's repetition of that quality, Bluebell replies (I'm officially quoting the novel now): "That's because it's the most important thing. Miss Isobel, you are so innocent. Don't you know that if you got a man who can make you happy in bed, whether or not he's got a title or money don't matter a lick."
Cue my shriek of "BULL-FUCKING-SHIT!!!" This line basically encapsulates the worst sort of romance, the novels that conflate sex with love. I'll make my beliefs clear: Sex != Romance. I definitely think sex can contribute to a romance (it certainly can't hurt, haha), and a well-written sex scene can definitely be a fun part of a romance novel, but the idea that a man's suitability as a husband revolves solely (or even mainly) around his prowess in bed is offensive. Thousands of years of history have written a hundred thousand tragic stories about women who discovered the hard way that a guy who gives great sex isn't necessarily the guy who loves you enough to stick around. And that's how I read romances - despite the fact that Sterling and Isobel had great sex with each other, I never believed their romance, because even though the sex scenes were well-written, their characters and their vertical interactions weren't. Their characters' actions were poorly motivated if not outright nonsensical, and they blamed the worst of their flaws on other people.
All of that being said, there were some things (gasp!) that I enjoyed about the novel. One of those things was the detail - I particularly liked reading about the sacrifices the Sinclairs had to make to their new household to maintain the illusion they were still rich - like the fact that the drawing and dining rooms were the only expensively- and fully-furnished rooms in the house - leaving their own bedrooms full of broken and cheap furniture. Or the extra servants they hired when they had parties to convince guests they employed more people than the incompetent pair of servants their father gave them.
Caskie also lent some historical relevance to the story by including the non-fictional Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, in a brief cameo. Lord Elgin was the man who saved (looted?) the Parthenon Marbles, and his appearance at a Sinclair dinner party gives rise to some intriguing political drama between Isobel's minister father, Elgin, and Sterling. Historical romances don't necessarily have to have direct ties to historical figures or events, but it's always interesting when authors tried to involve historical happenings with the romance of their characters.
Another element I liked, that I didn't expect to, was the way the public got involved with Sterling's wager. Everyone wants to bet on Sterling's wager, it turns out, and the lengths complete strangers go to in an attempt to influence Sterling and Isobel one way or the other were quite funny. During one dinner party, Sterling and a rival on opposite sides of the room race to see who can ask Isobel to dance first, with the men (who bet against Sterling) "accidentally" getting in Sterling's path while the women (who bet for Sterling) "coincidentally" block the rival's progress. Their delightfully underhanded support and sabotage were the bright points in the novel.
That being said, they were tiny sparks in a vast black sea of badness. To Sin with a Stranger was cliched, hackneyed, offensive, stupid, and in many ways nonsensical. Avoid this sin and do some penance instead. C-.